The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Don’t We Know about Ourselves?

Dear Unknown Friends:

With this issue we begin to publish a magnificent lecture by Eli Siegel: Poetry and the Unconscious, of 1949.

The phrase the unconscious is not used these days as it was for many decades of the 20th century—it’s not used with the terrific frequency of then. And as I see it, the big reason is this: The unconscious had been made very important by Freud, but in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. He had described it falsely, had people feel that what went on unseen in them was a cauldron of teeming repressions and drives, mainly having to do with sex. The unconscious that Freud depicted was a shabby yet looming thing, and people were fearfully impressed by it. The Freudian approach to mind ruled the field for many years. And when it faded there was largely a putting aside of the unconscious as something to be looked at: psychological practitioners went away from Freud without saying plainly that he was wrong; and while his view of the unconscious by then seemed uncompelling, they couldn’t replace it with anything that made sense. They didn’t understand the unconscious any better than he had.

Our Self, Seen Truly

Eli Siegel was a clear, courageous critic of Freud when Freudianism was at its height and few dared question it. The description Mr. Siegel gave then—and gives here—of the human self is beautiful, exact, true. And it is immediate for us. It is of this moment—because while people nowadays may not use the term unconscious, everyone feels there is much we don’t know about ourselves. We don’t know what makes us do as we do, feel as we feel. And unconscious, in keeping with its etymology, simply means not with knowledge, or not known.

Mr. Siegel gave the following definition—and this, in its simplicity and clarity, is so different from the murk of Freud: “The unconscious is that which is of us and affects us but we don’t know is of us and affects us” (TRO 667). People today, like those of every century, are afraid of what they don’t know about themselves. Yet they also long to understand it.

Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which shows that the self of everyone—both the self we’re aware of and that in us we don’t know—is aesthetic and nothing less. We have, present in us all the time, such opposites as motion and rest, freedom and order, force and gentleness, and our great need is to do what art does: make these opposites one, beginning with the opposites self and world, our very particular self and the wide world outside of us. How that is so, Mr. Siegel describes richly, vividly in the beautiful 1949 lecture we begin to serialize.

Arising from what he explained in the 1940s, he would later describe the large fight in every person—including the unconscious of every person—this way: it is “the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151). Contempt pits against each other the two biggest opposites in our lives, because contempt is the falsely triumphant feeling of being “for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”

There Is James Thomson

In Poetry and the Unconscious Mr. Siegel speaks, greatly, about the 19th-century poet James Thomson. That writer, as both person and artist, is understood here, centrally, deeply, by Eli Siegel—as he thirsted to be and never was before. The lecture is literary criticism at its finest, by the person I consider the best of all critics.

James Thomson didn’t know what millions of people right now don’t know about themselves: that the reason he disliked himself was his contempt—his having gotten a victory, a miserable victory, from being disgusted with the world. He didn’t know that a form of contempt was his desire to expunge the world through drink. (There are hundreds of other forms of contempt, many seemingly more respectable than that.) And Thomson didn’t know this huge thing, explained by Aesthetic Realism: his poetry did what he longed to do.

That is: all good poetry, Eli Siegel was the critic to show, arises from a tremendous desire to be just to what’s not oneself, with the feeling that this justice takes care of me, is freedom for me! And because of that inseparable oneness of an expressive self and justice to the world, the words the writer uses “take on a music, which is the poetic music.”

Here, then, is the beginning of a lecture that stands for Aesthetic Realism and Eli Siegel in their glowing comprehension of art and humanity.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Poetry and the Unconscious

By Eli Siegel

The unconscious is present in poetry, because it is present all the time. And when the unconscious is at its best, it is like poetry. In the unconscious, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, there are always two main procedures: one is to look upon the world as one’s offender, a means of humiliation, an interference, and the other is to love it without limit, be in relation to it always, go within it courageously, be affected by it, look upon it as a constant friend. These two tendencies represent the desire of the individual to make a secure and snug world in himself and get away from everything else, and the desire of the individual to welcome the great new and the great old and the great All That which is not oneself.

The two tendencies can also take the form of a desire to have everything comfortable, orderly, secure, and a desire to be in motion, be venturesome, be spacious.

A poet is a person who, at the time of writing a poem, can do what all people want to: put together the desire to be snug and orderly and the desire to be free, the desire to be a comfortable, isolated individual and the desire to take bold trips through the universe. That is in every poem.

We can see these things working in us, we can become aware of them, because if any person were asked, “Do you like things to be orderly?” that person would say yes, and if he were asked, “Do you like them to be free, to change, surprise you, have novelty, have a polish you didn’t look for?” he would say yes too. So these desires can be made conscious: to be secure and to be free, to be snug by one’s hearth and to be the seabird. The fullness of them, though, is unconscious. And the way they are put together is the very deepest thing in the unconscious. In other words, the deepest unconscious is that which causes poetry. It is also that which brings happiness. When a person is happy he is that much poetic.

The deepest unconscious would be that which could take the two main unconscious lines—one making for freedom and the other for snugness, one making for bold relations and the other for trim isolation—and have them work together. The deepest thing in the human unconscious is the desire to meet the conflict which is also part of the unconscious and say a poem can be made out of this everyday agony.

In showing that this is so, I am using a person who expresses in his life and, neatly, in his poems the two desires present in everyone. He could take either side of himself and, for the while in a poem, put together pain and pleasure, put together order and freedom. His life, as happens with other poets, did not catch up; in other words, his poetry was the most sensible part of his life. I am referring to a poet who is now at his greatest time of popularity. He has been called the poet of despair. He has been called the poet of the hell of London. He is James Thomson, 1834-1882. He did not go to Cambridge or Oxford; he had to get his education the hard way. And he was an army schoolmaster. He looked upon himself as a worker, and some of his most hilarious poems are about the joys of workers on a picnic. There is a fierceness in Thomson. One can see in his life the going from unrestrained hilarity to great despair, thorough despair.

The Self Is Like This

In a biography by J. Edward Meeker, The Life and Poetry of James Thomson, published in 1917 by Yale University Press, we find a quotation from Thomson:

There is the truth of winter and black night, there is the truth of summer and dazzling noonday; on the one side of the great medal are stamped the glory and the triumph of life, on the other side are stamped the glory and the triumph of death; but which is the obverse and which the reverse none of us surely knows.

In Aesthetic Realism lessons I have used the simile of the log of wood in water. Let us say that the log is divided into two parts. One part is called Nice Time; the other is called Feeling Like Hell. The log is having vicissitudes on the water, and at one time the uppermost part of the log, Nice Time, is above the water. Another time, what is above the water is Feeling Like Hell. The log, however, is never only what is above the water. It is always what is above the water and what is below. And sometimes, what is below the water comes to be above, and sometimes, as one might expect, what is above the water comes to be below. The self can be compared to this log of wood undergoing its philosophic career on the water: when the self seems to be riding high, it also has the Feeling Like Hell in it.

When we are riding high we tend to forget that the self which is riding high is not the whole self. If we are in the Feeling Like Hell time we tend to forget that that is not the whole self. We are always both, deeply. We cannot feel the pleasure when it seems the pain is present. We cannot feel the pain when it seems the pleasure is present. Most often we don’t want to. But the self is like the log. The self, though largely without conspicuous drama, is always in a swamp and always flying with the hilarity of an unusually lucky lark.

We have the two things, which, in essence, are not deeply called Misery/Happiness. What they are called is: Desire for the self to be alone and still / Desire for the self to explore otherness—or something like that.

In a poem, the deepest thing in the unconscious happens: the merging of the swamp and the hilarious lark, or felicitous seabird. That is why poetry, why aesthetics, is so important. It is difficult to merge the two aspects of ourselves in our conscious, everyday life; and there is a great deal of trouble.

The poetry of James Thomson is good poetry. It came in an honest way—both the cheerful and the miserable poetry—from his unconscious. The unconscious is the source that we don’t know—just as we don’t know what enables us to use our muscles: we can describe something and put it in a physiology textbook, but we don’t know what keeps us going, really.

Despair & Joy

James Thomson could be very, very cheerful, joyous. He is known best for that poem of despair “The City of Dreadful Night.” But he also wrote this, poem 18 in a series of small poems called “Sunday Up the River”:

The wine of Love is music,

And the feast of Love is song:

And when Love sits down to the banquet,

Love sits long:

Sits long and ariseth drunken,

But not with the feast and the wine;

He reeleth with his own heart,

That great rich Vine.

That is a joyous poem. There is unabashed hilarity to it.

Take another poem that has joyousness, poem 17:

Let my voice ring out and over the earth,

Through all the grief and strife,

With a golden joy in a silver mirth:

Thank God for Life!

Let my voice swell out through the great abyss

To the azure dome above,

With a chord of faith in the harp of bliss:

Thank God for Love!

Let my voice thrill out beneath and above,

The whole world through:

O my Love and Life, O my Life and Love,

Thank God for you!

It seems the Fates are being nice to Mr. James Thomson. He likes things; in fact, he’s chucking the Fates under the chin. He is riding high. But Thomson also could write in other ways. Take the beginning of “The City of Dreadful Night.” It is very musical. It puts together pain and pleasure, because we have pleasure reading about the misery.

The City is of Night; perchance of Death,

But certainly of Night; for never there

Can come the lucid morning’s fragrant breath

After the dewy dawning’s cold grey air;

The moon and stars may shine with scorn or pity;

The sun has never visited that city,

For it dissolveth in the daylight fair.

Dissolveth like a dream of night away;

Though present in distempered gloom of thought

And deadly weariness of heart all day.

But when a dream night after night is brought

Throughout a week, and such weeks few or many

Recur each year for several years, can any

Discern that dream from real life in aught?

In other words, Thomson, it seems, had recurrent nightmares, dreams where the things that are to be seen in “The City of Dreadful Night” were first seen.

He wrote this poem in 1870; it was published in 1874 in a magazine called the National Reformer. And it has been said he wrote it because he’d had unhappiness about love—because the young woman had died, and therefore he drank. But what we find is that earlier, at the time he was writing cheerful things, he also wrote this way. So it seems that though drink and the unhappiness in relation to love and the roamings of the streets of London and the insomnia could all have contributed, the source was present much earlier: the possibility of being joyous and caressing time, and also of being pained and saying, “Time, I do not want you—I want to get into nothingness and sleep and sleep and sleep and be no more James Thomson or anything.” Both of these are present in the unconscious of all people. And poetry merges the two; poetry comes from the unconscious drive to make the two things work together.

Stoniness—& Joyful Motion

To show that those two ways were present in Thomson pretty much from the beginning, I’ll read lines from an earlier poem. Children have a fight, as James Thomson did, between freedom and security, the desire to be in motion and the desire to have oneself by not moving at all. Children have described to me dreams about people changed to stone. And here we have Thomson, apparently in 1857, writing a poem called “The Doom of a City,” in four parts, and it is about people becoming stone. Meeker says:

In the second part, there is a description of this city, where all life has turned to stone—an allegory of the stony insensibility of the human heart....It is this section which most strongly suggests the City of Dreadful Night, except that this city is of senseless stone, while that is a ghastly night-vision of a living, moving metropolis.

Then Meeker quotes from “The Doom of a City”:

What found I?—Dead stone sentries stony-eyed,

Erect, steel-sworded, brass-defended all,

Guarding the sombrous gateway deep and wide

Hewn like a cavern through the mighty wall;

Stone statues all throughout the streets and squares,

Grouped as in social converse or alone;

Dim stony merchants holding forth rich wares

To catch the choice of purchasers of stone;

Statues fixed gazing on the flowing river

Over the bridge’s sculptured parapet;

Statues in boats, amidst its sway and quiver

Immovable as if in ice-waves set:—

The whole vast sea of life about me lay,

The passionate, heaving, restless, sounding life,

With all its tides and billows, foam and spray,

Arrested in full tumult of its strife

Frozen into a nightmare’s ghastly death,

Struck silent from its laughter and its moan;

The vigorous heart and brain and blood and breath

Stark, strangled, coffined in eternal stone.

When the professional people interested in finding the causes of multiple sclerosis do find them, I think those causes will have to do with why James Thomson wrote of people all being of stone. Why people harden, get sclerotic, has to do with why Thomson thought of people as being of stone.

Now, the other James Thomson is so definitely different that the contrast is notable. And the contrast should be talked about, since the two things in the contrast are a part, as I have said, of every unconscious. Take this joyous stanza, written about the same time as “The Doom of a City”:

“Oh, what are you waiting for here, young man?

What are you looking for over the bridge?”

A little straw hat with the streaming blue ribbons;

—And here it comes dancing over the bridge!

So Thomson is interested in the motion of a girl with a straw hat and ribbons, and he’s also interested in stone.